Jay Morgan
Sep 20, 2016

Are agencies getting innovation all wrong?

Innovation is not a product but a state of mind and a way of working. Jay Morgan of J. Walter Thompson offers five principles for increasing innovation in the agency world.

Jay Morgan
Jay Morgan

Steve Jobs described innovation as ‘the only way to win’, and it seems this industry couldn’t agree more. We're working furiously to create innovations and innovative work that will help both our clients and ourselves become winners.  

And we need new ways to win, because the challenge to break through the clutter of the news feed, let alone stay relevant and effective, are greater than ever. We’re battling attention on two key fronts. Firstly we need to communication that makes people stop and give a few moments of their precious and highly contested time. Secondly we are struggling with the medium to make format-appropriate creative: vertical content, autoplay video with sound off and the dominance of mobile.

So we need innovation. And are right to be focusing on it. However, despite this intense focus, true innovation is still elusive. Which makes me wonder why we're not seeing more result for our efforts. Are we getting innovation all wrong?

The answer may lie how we approach it. Because:

Innovation is not a product but a state of mind and a way of working.

Learn this phrase. Etch it into your psyche. It’s the most important thing you can do for your clients, for your agency and for your own career.

Many agencies and companies still talk about innovation like it’s a thing—an output or product at the end of a process. But that’s the problem. Innovation is not output at the end of a process, it is the process, combined with the state of mind going into and throughout the process.

Invention is the output of innovation—the novel new product or innovative campaign created at the end of a process of innovation.

So what state of mind do we need to do innovation better? And how can we work in ways that unlock that elusive innovative invention?

An open, curious, collaborative mind. A mind that leaves its ego at the door and opens up to a wide range of influences and inputs, including—vitally—technology. I’ve always believed that to create innovative work we need to infuse it with the latest technology, social trends and user behaviour. I believe firmly in the 'big idea' but I’ve seen how powerful the influence of technology can be in informing these big ideas. That said, don’t get me wrong: technology is in itself not the big idea.

The way I see it is kind of like the yin and yang theory. You need equal parts big idea and technology, interlocking and informing each other to create breakthrough work. One is not more important than the other, they are in balance.

Ignoring the latest technology and social behaviours drastically reduces our chance of creating breakthrough memorable work.

Dismissing the power and critical necessity of an overarching big idea sentences work to a short, low-impact lifespan, because there is no higher purpose.

There has never been a more important time than now for a process of innovation to pervade every part of our business.

The yin and yang balance of ideas and technology, combined with a process of innovation, can produce the groundbreaking work that we so desperately need right now

How do we apply this more helpful understanding of innovation to the work we produce? Many agencies hire ‘innovation’ specialists: creative technologists, digital strategists, digital creative directors. These are important to support and sustain the change, but a fundamental paradigm switch in the way an agency operates needs to take place for effective, long-lasting change.

I have five guiding principles to suggest as my starter for 10.

1. Play, play, play: Get your hands on the latest technology and play around with it

New technology opens up new ways of communicating, exploring concepts and interacting. One of the best ways to create an innovative process is to bake new technology knowledge into your team’s thinking. In the scheme of things it’s really not that expensive. Put aside $15,000 to $20,000 in your yearly budget, and that will be more than enough to keep your team stocked with the latest gadgets and a growing appetite for innovation.

2. Always be asking, 'How can we use technology to do this differently?'

I worked on a campaign to launch a new consumer electronics product, and the concept was that this new product was a metamorphosis of the technology before it. We set out to create a chrysalis, like a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly. We wanted this time-lapse effect that you might see on a David Attenborough documentary, slowly you see the caterpillar transform and emerge from the cocoon into a butterfly.

A traditional model-making technique (moulding key stages for the transformation and then interpolating the additional frames in post) prevailed, but we also looked into a much more innovative approach. We explored 3D modelling and animation to get the speed and style of the shot right. The idea was we would simply export our frames to 3D prints and shoot them one by one to make up the stop-frame transformation. This is a perfect example of working innovatively. I still regret not going with this approach.

3. Hire interesting and diverse people

Different perspectives are infectious. They infuse those around them with new thoughts, inspirations and ideas. Whereas cookie-cutter hiring creates one shade of vanilla.

We need variety and shouldn’t be afraid to look wider than in the past. Some of the most exciting and innovative people I work with today have only recently entered the advertising industry. Ex business consultants, architects and fine artists make for a brilliant mix of minds that approach problems and solutions from a very different perspective and generate widely different work.  

If you’re not hiring, then import genius. Seek out PhD students, university undergrads, fine artists, bio-hackers, chemists, engineers, game developers—anyone that can bring you surprising and fresh thinking and perspective. Import that thinking and knowledge into the agency and mix it with your creative minds, and the results are phenomenal.

4. Find the passionate few

An old boss once told me that it’s very difficult to make people change. You can try to encourage them, mandate change through policy or even make it a KPI, but in the end it won’t work. If you want to foster a passion working innovatively you need to find the passionate few who genuinely crave innovation and work with them to create innovative work. Once the others see how good this new way can be and the rewards it can bring then they’ll be desperate to get some of what you’re doing, and the only way to get it will be to work differently. 

5. Take your clients along for the ride

Don’t just show clients new technology as theoretical concepts on a page when you present new ideas. That’s the worst possible time to show them new technology and get them excited about the potential. Go back to principle 1 and explore the new tech with your clients—discover it together.

I believe that we are in a pivotal time in advertising, when the profession will be reshaped and transformed to adapt to a new landscape of media and social behaviours. The strongest card we have to play is still our creative acumen. But we need to fuse it with a whole new set of stimuli and familiarity with the new landscape. So if I leave you with anything, I hope it is this thought:

Innovation is not a product but a state of mind and a way of working.

Jay Morgan is group digital creative director at J. Walter Thompson Sydney

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